Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Hail Atlantis

"I love the friends I have gathered together here on this thin raft."
--Jim Morrison
This week Anima Mundi reminds America why we are home. It it not just the grand events like Jazz Fest or Carnival that define us, it is a hundred small scenes in the commonplace--somewhere today in an enraptured gospel church or around a lively table in a restaurant, in a small gathering of friends or a street-filing festival--even with the ruins around us, the venality of our politicians, and every trouble imaginable, the people of New Orleans find the joy in the day or in the moment. We live what the French call joie de vivre in a way that is uncommon among the Anglo-Saxon settlers of the north, but which is as automatic as breath among the post-colonial people of points south.

My own experience this week was my first chance to hear slide-guitar player Sonny Landreth at the Rock-N-Bowl. He is a fantastic musician and everything my friends had promised, and the audience swayed and danced and shouted with joy. As I find myself doing more since coming home, I spent much of my time looking not at the stage but at the crowd. What struck me Saturday night was not Landreth's obvious talent or the crowd's enjoyment of it. What stuck out was the mean age of the audience. At fifty, I was comfortably in the middle. For a rockin' blues player, it seemed odd that there were few if any younger people in the audience. We looked collectively like some tragically hip successor to the audience at a Lawrence Welk show.

I wondered where the young people were, why there were no twenty somethings in the audience. I've seen them out at clubs I might visit before, but that night people under 30 (hell, under 40) were conspicuous by their absence. Perhaps there was something fantastic going on across town that I missed, some show at another club that was drawing in the crowd that overran City Park a few weeks ago for Voodoo Fest. Or perhaps our own youth are succumbing to the overwhelming force of industrialized American pop culture that spawns rap artists in Africa and dresses the world in American sports t-shirts and Reeboks, a culture that has little room for the classics of 20th century music.

Today's Times-Picayune article about Fats Domino in New York melded perfectly with my Sunday morning reverie, and set me off down a road of worry:

Domino takes a seat at the piano and counts off "Blueberry Hill." His playing and singing are tentative, as they were during rehearsal. After maybe 90 seconds, he tapers off and stands up; the band is left to puzzle through the rest of the song, and Fats appears to be done for the night... Domino returns to the piano. No longer the center of attention, he comes alive. He pumps the keys, mouths the words, hunches his shoulders, turns to his left and grins at the audience. Lloyd beams, and the band is into it. Harrison blows an alto sax solo and Fats tacks on a final flourish. It is THE MOMENT everyone hoped for.

Fats Domino is pushing 70, and barely survived the flood of the Ninth Ward. Alvin Batiste, Earl King, Willie Tee, Earl Turbinton: so many of the musicians who defined the critical musical culture of New Orleans have passed since the Federal Flood. It seems at times that the antediluvian ambiance of city is vanishing even as the it tries to right itself. Perhaps it is just my own intimations of mortality as I turn 50 and see so many of the signature figures pass on, but I can't help but feel that even as we struggle to rebuild that something essential is slipping away from us. If all of the older musicians are passing, and a show like Landreth's draws an audience what will need comfortable seats in a few more years, how much longer will it go on?

I return again and again to the theme of memory and remembrance> I wonder if I do so because I feel I am writing the last entries in the log of a lost ship, the chronicle of a lost or forgotten city. I recall the artist who went around the Ninth Ward in the months after the storm paints Coatan onto tree trunks. As the musicians fade and I think the aging crowd of Saturday night, I begin to wonder if we are perhaps among the last of our kind, the final generation or something close to it.

I find myself thinking again of the lost cities of the Maya, the magnificence of what they built and why it was all ultimately and mysteriously lost. Was it war without end, a fundamental economic imbalance between the feathered-and-masked aristocracy and the corn-grinding slaves at the bottom, or some environmentally unsustainable aspect of their culture that left those cryptic pyramids drowned in the jungle? All of those specters hang over us today in America, and in New Orleans more than any place else. What will be lost, and what will we leave behind, how will we be remembered, if ours is the first (but not likely the last) American city to sink beneath the waves or simply be abandoned as unsustainable.

The same forces that may have undone the mesoamerican cultures and threaten us today seem too monumental to turn aside. Perhaps it is all we can do to live the life we cherish in the place that makes it possible (or by equal turn to live the life made possible by the place we cherish). If we are the last of our kind, so be it. All we can do is record what we can of what and who we were, and this place where we live, even as we live out our own version of the last days of Pompeii.

As I sat on my porch in the cool of the early morning last Sunday following the train of thought that became this post, it was not Sonny Landreth's licks that played in my head. With a perfectly incongruous synchronicity the music that ran through my mind was a song every one of the middle-aged fans at Rock N Bowl would remember: Donovan's Atlantis. Even as these thoughts of loss and finality first passed through my mind, it was not with sadness but with the upbeat Sixties folk-rock sound of that song and its anthemic chorus. That is how it came to me. Let us rejoice and sing and dance. This is Where I Want to Be.

Hail, Atlantis.


Comments:
Hi Marc, I love your bloggery and posted you today onto the New Orleans News Ladder. I hope that you like the site I always link in the titles.
I really love your blog, both of them. You rock. You can find my other one on the profile.
Your name sounds familiar. I used to deliver for Angeli and also worked at the Flora Cafe (Juice Man) and lived over in the bywater.
Anyway thanks again and drop by and say hello.

After doing the city that care forgot and the Presidente left for dead, for the storm and six days of the flood before excaping north, I still haven't made it back home yet...doing this blog sorta keeps me out of McDonalds with a rifle if you know what I mean...
 
Maybe, just maybe, it was an anomaly. Most of Michael's classes were canceled this week (he had one paper due today and is staying in town for the holiday to study for the 12/1 LSAT *sniff*) but I think a lot of students headed "home" this weekend and perhaps a lot of New Orleanian college students were just getting into town. I could be wrong, but I suspect the 18-25s were in a pre-Thanksgiving flux this particular Saturday night.

Another beautiful post, albeit a sad one. I hope you're wrong, at least about it all disappearing.
 
Mark,
I mistakenly deleted that post that you linked to and the email that I quoted. Sorry about that,
 
Nice earworm, dude. Now I'm thinking about how to arrange "Atlantis" for a brass band: "Way down (bomp bomp bomp) below the ocean (bomp bomp ba ba ba ba bomp), Where (bomp bomp bomp) I long to be (bomp) she may be (bomp bomp bomp)..."

Oh yes, Hau'oli La Ho'omaika'i (Happy Thanksgiving) from Hawai'i, y'all.
 
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"And when we speak we are afraid our words will not be heard nor welcome, but when we are silent we are still afraid. So it is better to speak remembering we were never meant to survive." -- Audie Lorde

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